Merlin van Lawick on How His Grandma, Jane Goodall, Inspires Him: “She Represents Hope” (Exclusive)

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Feb. 9 2023, Published 1:39 p.m. ET

Merlin van Lawick and His Grandma Dr. Jane Goodall on an abstract background
Source: Andrew Zuckerman, JGI/Shawn Sweeney

For decades, Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, has inspired people far and wide to protect the environment, get involved in climate activism, work in wildlife conservation, and more. But perhaps no one is more inspired by the world famous ethologist than Merlin van Lawick, Goodall's grandson, who is 30 years old as of publication in February 2023, who now works for the Jane Goodall Institute.

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His passion for protecting wildlife and the planet started as a child, thanks to his grandmother inspiring him to care about nature.

“I naturally developed a love for nature as a young boy,” van Lawick tells Green Matters via email in a recent interview. “I feel privileged to have had such role models as my grandmother growing up.”

This led van Lawick to eventually join his grandmother’s organization, where he now works as the Communications Associate, Africa Programs and Science for the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) USA Communications & Partnerships team. van Lawick is also an MBA student at Arden University in England, and he serves as a board member for Earth Species Project (ESP), a nonprofit that is using AI to better communicate with nature.

Green Matters recently caught up with Merlin van Lawick to learn more about how his grandmother inspired him to get into this line of work, his conservation work at JGI, and more.

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Merlin van Lawick and Jane Goodall pose with another woman
Source: JGI Tanzania

Jane Goodall with grandchildren Merlin van Lawick and Angel van Lawick at the JGI Tanzania office in Dar es Salaam

Merlin van Lawick recalls his grandmother, Jane Goodall, fostering a love of nature and stories in him as a child.

Merlin van Lawick's mother is named Maria, and his father is Goodall's only son, Hugo Louis van Lawick (aka Grub). The couple raised their children in Tanzania. The 30-year-old recalls many nights away at his family's vacation home in England, in which Dr. Goodall would read books to him, his brother, and his sister to fall asleep; help foster a love of nature in her grandchildren; and empower them to want to make a difference in the world.

“She helped me create a sense of connection to the environment around me,” van Lawick recalls. “From observing her and listening to her advice, I learned that we are all connected in this tapestry of life, that we need each other, and that each of us has a role to play. This has been such a valuable lesson.”

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“I am also fascinated with the connections between humans, other animals, and all life forms,” says van Lawick. Obviously, his grandmother is, too.

“I want to use my energy to advocate for increased efforts to understand other animal species and our relationship to nature," van Lawick adds. "As a result, people will naturally become more compassionate toward other species and respectful of the environment we all share.”

van Lawick didn’t always know that he’d wind up joining his grandmother’s organization.

“I have always admired and deeply respected my grandmother’s lifelong dedication to her work,” van Lawick tells Green Matters. He even joined a Roots & Shoots club, which is the Jane Goodall Institute’s youth program, as a child.

However, he didn’t realize he wanted to work for JGI until many years later.

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“She represents hope for the future of our planet and advocates for animal welfare,” van Lawick tells us, speaking about the realizations he had about his grandmother that inspired him to want to work for her nonprofit.

“She travels the world tirelessly to spread her message of hope and call to action, inspiring all generations, and especially young people, to roll up their sleeves and fight for their future, to fight apathy,” he continues, “to be part of the solution and to follow their hearts. This is a worthy cause that I feel drawn to, so I joined her mission.”

Merlin van Lawick smiles in front of greenery
Source: JGI/Shawn Sweeney
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At the Jane Goodall Institute, Merlin van Lawick is most proud of his work on the Tacare initiative.

Many of the projects van Lawick has worked on at JGI are led by the organization’s Tacare model of community-led conservation. As part of Tacare, JGI does “not enforce what we think should happen with the communities we work with. Instead, we work with them to find their desired solutions,” van Lawick says.

“[Tacare] means to take care: to take care of myself, to take care of the environment around me, and pay attention to all the life forms that are present in that moment,” van Lawick explains. “It means to conduct my life respectfully and choose my actions wisely to leave things a little better than how I found them.”

Dr. Goodall started the Tacare program in western Tanzania, and over the years, Tacare has “evolved into JGI’s model of community-led conservation across the chimpanzee range, teaming up with the community members as our partners in conservation and sustainable development,” van Lawick says.

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van Lawick is involved in several initiatives at JGI that are led by the Tacare principles, but he’s perhaps most proud of JGI’s work at Pugu Nature Center in Tanzania, where JGI is bringing young people into the nature center to replant native trees, and monitor them using modern technology.

JGI even released a book about Tacare, called Local Voices, Local Choices: The Tacare Approach to Community-Led Conservation in 2022.

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Jane Goodall's teachings have helped inform her grandson's life philosophy.

“I like to focus on living for the moment and doing my best. I learned that from my grandmother, and it resonated with me,” van Lawick tells us. “I want to honor the Earth and all its wonderful life forms with such an attitude. I want to stay as conscious, aware, and informed as I possibly can. One needs to be so, to live a meaningful life.”

Dr. Goodall is well-known for her unrelenting feeling of hope, which has helped her remain positive and steadfast in her activism over the years — and it looks like she has rubbed off on her grandson in that sense.

“Many of us feel apathetic when we think about all the problems in the world. I mean, how could we not?” van Lawick tells us. “But instead of looking at everything all at once, I think about what I can do this very moment, to fight for what I believe in.”

“Most of the time, it’s the simple daily choices I make, my lifestyle, and the individuals I meet every day, whether they have feet, hooves, wings, or fins, hair, or antennae,” he continues. “The more I do, the more inspired I feel to do more! I urge the reader to consider that small actions collectively make a big difference. There are so many other people out there who care as much as you do for the future of our planet.”

CORRECTION, Feb. 15, 2023: This article has been updated to reflect that Merlin van Lawick is 30 years old as of publication, not 22.

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